Billy, Don't Be a Zero

I've become so accustomed to restaurants moving into Miami from elsewhere that
when an eatery moves out of our city, I'm surprised. I'm doubly astonished when said business is Billy's Stone Crab & Seafood Restaurant. Folks around here knew it as the 79th Street Causeway stone crab emporium Billy's on the Bay, which William Hershey has owned for about the past fifteen years (both on the causeway and in another location in Miami Springs). Practically the first day I moved to Miami, I was told about Billy's. There, apparently, many a culinary love affair began. Yet after dining at the revitalized version on North Ocean Drive in Hollywood (where Topsiders used to be), I'd guess the restaurant is responsible for ending more relationships than it spawned.

Trouble begins in the dangerously overfilled parking lot, whose single entrance/exit is positioned near an extremely busy intersection at the foot of the bridge spanning the Intracoastal. We eventually found a spot at the meters across A1A, but not before one member of our party was challenged to a fistfight over the issue of parking. A bartender told us the city is at fault, which isn't too hard to swallow when you're coming from Miami. Still, the restaurant could go a long way toward alleviating the problem by hiring a valet.

Assuming they've managed to park without resorting to serious fisticuffs, guests ride an elevator up to the second-story dining room; there's a fish market on the first floor. Having ridden up alone in the elevator, we were a little taken aback when the doors opened on a crowded scene...and a 30-minute wait. Rather than join the customers hovering around the hostess stand, we did our time at the four-sided bar and enjoyed the view of the Intracoastal as seen through Billy's wall of plate glass.

A patterned green carpet, brass railings, and light polished wood tables are a pleasant and scenic complement.

The surroundings weren't lovely enough to compensate for this message from the hostess: "Your waiter's a little busy, so don't worry if it takes him a while to get your order. He's got a screwy system, but it works." It didn't work, and neither should he A at least not as a waiter. When he did finally greet us half an hour later, he was clearly in a major panic, covered with sweat and out of breath. He spit out the specials like a wad of chewing gum, then shifted impatiently as we made up our minds. Deli-style service is fine when the prices call for it. These don't.

The printed menu rang a second alarm bell. Billy's didn't bother ordering new ones when they moved up the coast this past fall. They just took a black marker to the "on the Bay" part of the name, and crossed out various items that are no longer being served. We prepared for the worst.

And the worst is what we got with an underbaked hot seafood combination. Twin oysters Rockefeller were slimy, half-cold and covered with creamed spinach; a pair of stuffed mushroom caps were so small we couldn't discern anything besides bread in the stuffing. Clams casino and oreganato (a pair of each) were equally uninspiring: The mollusks' meat had been chopped, mixed with the appropriate (if bland) flavorings, and replaced in the shell. The same sparse, uniform dicings were evident in New England clam chowder, a creamy, mediocre blend. Although manager Patricia Russo insists that Billy's uses only fresh ingredients, the clams might just as well have been canned, given the rough treatment they received.

Conch fritters, too, were a disappointment, deep-fried balls of dough spiked with red peppers and little else, accompanied by a bitter cocktail sauce. "French fried eggplant fingers" with a chunky marinara spiced with oregano, an a la carte vegetable dish we had requested, was served as an appetizer. Crunchy and bland, it nonetheless managed to eclipse the other vegetable we ordered with our meal, creamed spinach, which never appeared at all.

The waiter literally flung down our salads, which had been sitting on a tableside tray stand while we were munching starters, sending one skidding dangerously toward my lap. The fluted glass plates held a standard toss of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and tomatoes, with commercial-tasting dressings -- French (which tasted more like Russian), blue cheese, and creamy garlic -- in metal ramekins on the side. None of this would have looked good on my clothes, either.

A stone crab claw dinner was the only entree that did look appetizing. It tasted good, too, though we didn't care for the dipping sauce, which had a metallic aftertaste, the medium-size claws themselves were fresh and perfectly cooked. Out of their shells, the stone crabs garnished a fillet of dolphin, which was said to have been sauteed in white wine, lime, and tarragon. The fish was afloat in so much butter that my guest felt compelled to drain it before digging in. Nothing, however, could improve the leathery dolphin, as overcooked as the two mushy shrimp lurking amid the dry hunks of stone crab on top of it.

Shrimp in a scampi sauce wasn't much better, the butter sauce more lemony than garlicky. The crustaceans were arranged on a bed of highly seasoned yellow rice that contained red and green peppers to its overwhelming disadvantage; other entrees, with the exception of pasta main courses, were served with a choice of French fries or a foil-wrapped baked potato.

Some greasy French fries would have been a welcome accompaniment to a bowl of linguine with white clam sauce. The pasta was blanketed with the same chopped clams we had disliked in the appetizers and the chowder, unseasoned dried-out nuggets like so many pencil erasers. In hindsight we shouldn't have bothered ordering the dish with broccoli. The additional two bucks that option (available with any pasta dish) cost would have been better spent on cigarettes, which probably would have been healthier.

Rather than attempt dessert, we ran for our car, which had been decorated with a parking ticket thanks to a meal that had taken twice as long as it should have. Judging from the conversation around the elevator, other patrons shared our lack of enthusiasm. Incoming customers were forewarned with more than a few "terrible, terrible" and "don't bother" comments. I only wish we'd met those would-be reviewers on our way up.

Side Dish
Here's a publishing trend I really like A restaurant newsletters. Looks like the old stoves are finally getting into the desktop act, sending monthly updates to customers and critics alike. Actually, they're pretty handy promo tools: In addition to printing chef Scott Howard's recipes, Martha's Tropical Grille in Hollywood announces special events such as winemakers' dinners; and Bistro Zenith in Boca Raton reports on menu and staff changes. Then there are the full-color photo, multipurpose 'zinelike issues of Culinary Expressions, a publication sponsored by Sage, Mistral, and Evangeline, all located in Fort Lauderdale; and the even more elaborate (writers with bylines! columnists!) Good Tastes, which highlights the activities of the Down Under (also in Fort Lauderdale ) and La Vieille Maison (in Boca Raton).

I see no newsletters from Dade restaurants. And so I have no

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